Domestic terrorism charge against Orleans County student marks rare use of 2018 law

By | August 1, 2023
Domestic terrorism charge against Orleans County student marks rare use of 2018 law
Domestic terrorism charge against Orleans County student marks rare use of 2018 law
Lake Region Union High School. Image via Google Maps

Late last week, a Lake Region Union High School student threatened gun violence on Snapchat, calling out three students by name, as well as the entire school community. 

The minor was quickly apprehended and appeared in family court last Friday, facing charges of criminal threatening and domestic terrorism — marking the rare, and possibly first, use by prosecutors of a four-year-old statute.

The law makes it a felony to take a “substantial step” to violate state law with the intent to “cause death or serious bodily injury to multiple persons” or to “threaten any civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings, or kidnapping.”

It was passed in 2018 in response to the case of Poultney teenager Jack Sawyer, whose journal allegedly showed a detailed plan to kill a number of people at Fair Haven Union High School. However, charges against Sawyer were dropped after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the teenager’s preparations for the shooting did not meet the state’s definition of a crime. Sawyer was later charged with two misdemeanors and released on bail.

According to the domestic terrorism statute, a “substantial step” means that the person’s conduct strongly corroborates an intent to complete the offense.

Jessica Brown, assistant professor of criminal law at Vermont Law School who long worked as a public defender, said Tuesday that she was unaware of any other case in which a domestic terrorism charge had been filed in Vermont. 

While further details of the Lake Region Union High School case are under wraps, as the case is being heard in family court, Orleans County Sheriff Jennifer Harlow said Friday that the “elements” of the case “fit the statute” for domestic terrorism.

State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett did not respond Friday to questions about the case. Her staff said additional details of the case were unlikely to be shared.

Brown said it’s not uncommon for a prosecutor to bring a more serious charge and what lawyers might call a “lesser included offense”: overlapping charges to cover the bases from a prosecutor’s point of view. If the more serious charge doesn’t stick, the prosecutor can still pursue a conviction on the lesser offense. 

In the Lake Region case, that lesser charge would be criminal threatening, which specifies that one person shall not threaten another in a way that places the other person in “reasonable apprehension of death or serious bodily injury.” This year the Legislature toughened penalties for the misdemeanor charge for specific situations, including threats made regarding acts at public or private schools.

While a person convicted of domestic terrorism could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $50,000, the penalty for criminal threatening at a school is not more than two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000.

Brown said the newer nature of both statutes would likely free up the defense to try a lot of challenges, as there is not much precedent.

The Orleans County incident contrasts with a “potential threat” incident last month at Montpelier High School, where a male student told a classmate “if he were to come shoot up the school, (how he) would access the school and could have the entire downstairs before the upstairs knew what was going on.” The student, who was reported to carry a firearm in his vehicle’s glove box, also made comments about needing to upgrade his current firearm setup to an AK-47.

A temporary protection order was issued against the student on May 17, the day school administrators contacted police, and several firearms were removed from his home.

This week, an extreme risk protection order was issued, forbidding the teen from purchasing, possessing or receiving any dangerous weapons for six more months. The statute allowing extreme risk protection orders was signed into law — and utilized — after the Sawyer case at Fair Haven Union High School.

Charges have not yet been filed against the Montpelier High School student. Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said Tuesday he plans to review the case in the near future to determine if any charges will be filed.

“There’s no indication that we could see that he intended to carry through,” Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete said Tuesday. “There were no overt steps or actions that he took.”

During a virtual “town hall meeting” Thursday evening to discuss the Montpelier case and the police response, Peete said there’s a “high bar” for establishing intent to prove domestic terrorism.

Lake Region Principal Andre Messier said Monday afternoon that the overall vibe at the school was pretty much back to normal, especially with the student who made the threats in custody. However, he said the incident caused some lingering unease.

“It’s just unnerving,” he said. “Definitely unnerving, unsettling, and I think for us adults too, we’re just really questioning why we are in this place right now, in our world, with the threats and the violence.”

Riley Robinson contributed reporting.

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Domestic terrorism charge against Orleans County student marks rare use of 2018 law